Thursday, December 29, 2011

Marhaban! Marrakesh.

Welcome to Marrakesh! Those were the words that Salah shouted out as he drove by the terracotta red walls that surround the medina.  It was just a few minutes earlier that we had been driving into the city.

It was evening rush hour when we arrived into Marrakesh and we inched along with the rest of the traffic.

Last night, I had pulled up the website of our riad, Amira Victoria, so that Salah could get driving directions on how to get us as close as he could to the place.  From reading all the reviews about the place, the two common comments were how nice it was and that it was very difficult to find.  I just hoped that Salah could drop us off at a place that we could ask for directions to get us there the rest of the way.  I told myself I would worry about that when the time came but in the meantime, I would enjoy the ride through the city.


Salah lives in Marrakesh so he knows the place well and after dropping us off, he would be spending the night here.  In the morning, he would be picking up another group and heading back in the same direction to Fez.  What a job!

Compared to Fez, Marrakesh is definitely a much bigger city - wider streets, more traffic and a lot more commercial establishments.  It all looked very modern.

Salah drove through one of the medina gates to take us *inside*.  From there, he drove carefully through the narrow streets, stopping once to ask for directions.   Right away, it was obvious the Marrakesh was a very different place from the Fez medina.  For one thing, it's flat which will be really good for Mildred and the other thing was that the streets were wide enough to accommodate for motorcycles so donkeys were pretty much non-existent.  I'd rather be bumping into a donkey than a motorbike though it's a toss up between stepping in donkey poop and breathing in exhaust fumes from the motorbikes.  You can't win them all.

Finally, when he could drive the car no further, Salah parked the car and before we all got out, he placed a phone call.  Later on, I found out that he had called the riad to ask for someone to come and meet us. That was really nice of Salah to do though when he was on the phone, it sounded like a very angry conversation.   When he got off the phone, he told us that the person at the other end, Hassan, initially told him that he was not going to be sending anyone to meet us and that we had to make our own way.  According to Salah, he badgered the guy into sending someone.  I was relieved to hear that because even though I was confident that we would eventually find the place, it was definitely nice to have someone walk us over.....saves us a lot of time and hassle.

So, we waited for whomever it was that was coming from the hotel to meet us.  Eventually, a very slender, older man dressed in a gray uniform complete with white gloves and a red fez showed up.  He was our *guide*.

It was our moment to say good bye to Salah.  He had taken good care of us; we rewarded him well for his time and efforts. 

"Riad Amira Victoria " We followed our guide for a very short walk to the riad.  A pair of potted palm trees, planted in tall green pots, flanked the beautiful front door.  The name of the riad was painted on the pots.  If not for those palms, no one would ever be able to find this place.

We entered inside the riad into a long hallway lined with collectibles and old photos.  The terracotta tile floor was lined with beautiful, well worn rugs.

The hallway led us into a courtyard and off to one side was the enclosed dining room.  We followed inside the dining room.

There, a man clad in dark wool coat greeted us.  Though it was odd to see him with a coat on, I have to admit that it was cold inside the room.  He introduced himself as "Hassan" and I instantly recognized his name from all the reviews of the riad.

Hassan led us over to one of the dining room tables.  Our guide, who Hassan told us was named "Mustafa" had disappeared.....I didn't even notice him leaving our sides.  I hoped he would come back so we could tip him.

Looking around, Aaron's comment was that this riad felt more like a hotel than Dar Sienna.  We had gotten so spoiled in Fez where we had the entire place to ourselves for several days.  Here, we would have to share the space with strangers. 

We sat down and Hassan handed us a few hotel pamphlets which were extremely useful because they had a map of the area the medina the riad was located in with arrows pointing the way to Djemma el Fna.  According Hassan, it's easy to get to the famous square and it's only about a 20 minute walk.  Woohoo!   I had him highlight the route with a pen so we could see it.  Looked simple enough.

As we perused the pamphlet, Hassan disappeared and when he returned, he had the registration forms for us to complete.  Just about this time, Mustafa returned with a tray of glasses filled with mint tea and some cookies to munch on. I like Moroccan hospitality :-)

So, we took a few minutes to sip on tea, fill in the forms and chat with Hassan.  Seems like a nice guy. I'm going to need him to help us arrange for transportation for the day tour to Essaouira so I have to really be very nice to him :-)

When we were done, Hassan handed us the keys to our rooms.   Mustafa insisted on rolling my bag for me.  Unfortunately, I didn't have any small change to give him so I had to make a mental note to do that later.  He's been very kind.

Though it was already dark outside, it was too early to just go to the room and call it a night.


"Time to explore! "Aaron and Mildred wanted to hang back but Soon was good to go so he and I decided to take a few minutes to get settled in and then we headed out. Destination?  Djemma el Fna of course!

Before we headed out, we confirmed with Hassan that we could get back in.  "Just knock on the door and the night watchman will let you in", he replied.  Okay.

We followed the map turning right as we headed out the door and then taking a left when the street came to a tee.  Soon is very good at noting landmarks so he was making mental breadcrumbs as we walked.

We made our way around the Medersa Ben Yousef.  It's obvious we're not locals and that we're heading towards "the square" as the locals refer to Djemma el Fna, so there's no shortage of young guys to tell you which way to go.   Of course, they also want to lead you and that is never an offer that comes for free.

We made a few wrong turns here and there but with a few kind folks pointing us in the right direction, we ended up in the souks.   Hassan had told us that our path to the square would take us through the souks so I was certain we were headed in the right direction.  This is the kind of place you go to where a compass would be ever so handy. I must make a mental note to add one to my list of travel gear.


It was amazing how the activity and noise level ramped up the moment we stepped inside the covered souk.  The street was not as narrow as the main one that ran through the souk in Fez but it was just as jammed packed with people, stores and stuff.....lots of stuff.  Moroccan stuff.  I had already hit Moroccan stuff sensory overload in Fez so I was content just walking on by.  Shopping will have to take place another day and time.






It seemed like the longest walk through the largest street market in the world before we emerged back into the open air.

 




"Djemma el Fna"
Amazingly enough, the decibel level of the crowd was even louder when we finally made it to the square.  Not surprising because the place was p-a-c-k-e-d, absolutely packed!   I had read that it's a busy place all year round but I think that over the holidays, it's just as crowded with the seasonal invasion of tourists from Europe. 






We snaked our way through the crowd and soon found ourselves standing in the heart of this world famous square.   We were immersed in swirl of carnival like atmosphere.   There were street performers, food vendors, fortune tellers, henna artists, medicine men and even people playing games.

One section of the square was shrouded in smoke rising up from charcoal grills.  This was the area that gets set up each night with food stalls.  Soon and I decided to wander through the stalls to get an idea of what the offerings were.   Each stall had set up tables and chairs for diners to sit on.  People were packed in like sardines but no one seemed to mind.  I guess as long as there is food and it's tasty and cheap, atmosphere is completely irrelevant....at least it would be for me.  Here is the type of place where watching the cooks in front of you and people around you just holds your attention.


As expected, one person after another came up to us with menu in hand trying to lure us to sit down and have a meal.  We had just stuffed our faces a short while and neither of us was hungry.  While Soon did his best to graciously turned down each offer, I was trying hard not to stare at the plates and bowls of food that people were eating.  though I made a couple of mental notes of places that I might want to return to on another night.

We noticed that each restaurant was assigned a number but unfortunately, they weren't located sequentially next to one another so it wouldn't be as easy to find restaurant 42 as you would think.   Why is finding a place so difficult to do in Morocco?!?! 

We continued our stroll around the square.  There was activity every which way I looked.  The sky was filled with smoke and the ground with noise.  At one end of the square, I could see the lights of a minaret.  I knew from my pre-trip reading that that was Koutoubia mosque.  I wanted to try and find a way to get closer to it but it was difficult in the dark and with the crowd obscuring our view and the path.  We'll see it tomorrow.


Off to one side of the square was a street lit up with tree like lights and lined with shops and restaurants.   We decided to check it out. 


 "A taste of home"
Of course, places that sell food catch our eye and places that sell food that remind us of Malaysia are especially hard to pass by....actually, impossible to pass by :-)  Such was the case with the one restaurant that sold fresh pressed sugar cane juice.  Oh my God, I've not had fresh pressed sugar cane juice since my last trip to Malaysia and that was more than 10 years ago!




I had to have some.  6 dirhams for a small plastic cup's worth.   We bought a cup each.   The guy took two canes down and fed into the machine. Out came the juice into a metal jug.  He poured the juice into the cups.  It looked just right.  Green with a bit of froth on the top.  I took a sip. It tasted a bit odd.  Soon said it was the orange juice they add to it to preserve the color.  I don't know about that.  Even so, I have to admit, I enjoyed the drink.  We're definitely coming back.

 



The same restaurant also sold stuffed versions of the bread that reminds Soon of roti chanai.  The woman was making it fresh and it looked good, really good but I was truly stuffed.  So, no Moroccan version of roti chanai for us. 

There wasn't much else to see on this street.  Like the main square, it too was packed with people and street vendors.

 With our sugar cane juice cups in hand, we headed back towards the square.  Lots of hub bub going on around us.  I was beginning to reach sensory overload with the crowds, the noise and the lights.

Located nearby the food stalls, in the square, were the orange juice vendors.  It was one vendor after the next, located side by side; all selling the same juice and the same bottles of water.  Price wise, they also all seemed to be the same 4 dirhams for a small plastic cup's worth of freshly squeezed juice.  As far as I can tell, there's no price cutting among the vendors so I don't know how they make money.  No paying for juice since we get it for free with every breakfast.  So, move on.
 

Ah....but then, we came to the nut vendors.  Mounds of nuts, piled high, calling my name.  Yes, they were calling my name.  Julee, Julee, take me home.  I was trying to not be greedy but Soon didn't help my efforts by asking if I wanted to buy any.  Hello?  All the nuts were calling out to me but the almonds shouted the loudest so we got a sample to taste and with that, bought a 1/2 kilo.  They were very lightly toasted and very lightly salted.  The kind that you can eat a handful of without having to take a sip of water to wash down the salt.

With my bag of nuts to munch on, we walked on a bit more but I think we had reached our limit and we decided to head back to the riad.  I don't think either of us was confident we would make our way back in a straight shot so the earlier the headstart we got, the better as neither of us wanted to stay out late either.  It had been a long day and my head was ready to meet up with a soft, fluffy pillow.

We back tracked and wound our way through the souk.  No problem there since that was a straight shot.  Once out of the souk and it was a different story.  Many of the stores that had been opened when we first passed by were now closed so our breadcrumbs were no longer visible.

"We're lost, really lost!! " We headed in the direction we thought we had to go in and very quickly realized we were lost.   There was no shortage of young men asking us where were headed and what hotel we were staying at.  I felt like a piece of meat to a vulture. They just kept descending on us.  As often happens, there's always one that seems nicer than the others and you get sucked in by their kindness.   I didn't want to tell him where we were staying.  Besides, I figured he wouldn't know so I told him that we wanted to get back to the Medersa Ben Yousef except I think I said mosque.  Anyway, he walked us to some place and then pronounced that we were at Ben Yousef.  He then asked Soon for a tip....you know, for all of his 5 minutes of hard work.  Soon pulled out a few coins from his pocket and handed them to the guy who was none to pleased to find that he had only gotten a few dirhams.  He voiced his displeasure to Soon and I told Soon to just keep walking.  The guy kept walking alongside Soon until Soon pulled out a few more coins.  It still wasn't enough for the guy but it was enough from our perspective so we kept quite and kept walking.  He eventually stopped following us.

One down, two to go.  Yep, no sooner had we lost one when we gained a young boy who was probably in his early teens.  He chose to follow me.  Yes, pick on someone your own size.  He asked me where were going, what hotel were staying at, etc.  I told him we were not staying a hotel.  He kept asking.  I kept giving the same answer.   He kept asking and I lost my patience.  I stopped in my tracks and loudly but firmly told him that I was not staying at a hotel.  His friend then came to his defense and told me that he's just a boy to which I replied, "tell your boy to leave us alone".  With that, we lost the second vulture.

We continued on our way.....lost, terribly lost.  Really, really lost.  Not a comfortable feeling to be wandering around dimly lit streets with no idea of where you're going.  At one point, Soon said we needed to turn around and I said, "you mean we have to walk by the boy again?".  That was not a solution for me.  Luckily, Soon recognized a landmark before we had to cross paths again with the boy again and we veered off in a different direction.

I swear it couldn't have been a few steps before the third boy approached us and offered us help.  By now, I was certain (think positive!) that we were close to our riad so I mentioned the name of the street we were looking for.  As expected, he said he knew the street and would take us there.  In fact, he lived on the street.  Sure.  Call me a skeptic if you will but sure.

"We made it! " The boy was leading his bicycle and walking alongside us.  He seemed to bea nice boy but then so did the other two.  Soon recognized the right hand turn to the street before we even got there. Yes, third time was the charm!  This young boy was not lying.  A few feet after we made a right hand turn on to the street, he stopped in front of his house.  He was telling the truth after all.  I gave him a tip and thanked him with a smile. It was a smile of relief that we had made it back.

We knocked on the door and rang the bell and patiently waited for someone to come and let us in.  A man opened the door and we walked inside.  I was glad to be back.

It wasn't late when we got back but I was ready to call it a night.  Shower, a bit of laundry, a bit blogging and it would be light's out after that.  Tomorrow will be our first full day in Marrakesh and I'm looking forward to exploring as much of it as I can!

Goodnight Marrakesh!